Making Tasks More Difficult May Help Overrule Office Distractions

Maybe there’s a guy who likes to yak about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones, or a woman who likes to take phone calls on speaker. Whether you’re in an 80s era “cube farm” or a modern open office, working in the midst of a sea of noisy distractions can prove particularly challenging.

So how can you better focus on the task at hand? You might want to make the task a little bit more difficult, according to a new study from Swedish researcher Niklas Halin and colleagues.

This is a photo of a woman trying to concentrate on work.Previous research  has highlighted two distinct factors that influence distractibility: task difficulty and working memory capacity.

Increasing task difficulty makes us less distractible by narrowing our attention so that we zero in on only the information we need. And individuals who have greater working memory capacity are less distractible because they’re able to hold more information in mind and process it at one time.

Drawing these findings together, Halin and colleagues hypothesized that increasing the difficulty of a task may help shield individuals with low working memory capacity from noisy distractions, ultimately helping to boost their performance on the task.

The researchers tested their hypothesis in a setting designed to mimic some of the auditory distraction we encounter in real life.

They asked students to read short texts about imaginary alien cultures — some of the texts were presented at the same time as a recording of distracting background speech. In addition, some of the texts were displayed in a font that was easy to read (TimesNew Roman) and some in a font that was more difficult to read (Haettenschweiler).

After reading each text, the students completed a multiple choice test to gauge how much they remembered about the alien cultures.

Relative to a quiet environment, background speech seemed to impair participants’ memory for what they had read — but only for text that was displayed in the easy-to-read font. Background speech did not impair memory for text that was hard to read, presumably because the difficult font forcibly narrowed students’ attention to focus on the text.

Looking at performance within the distracting environment, the researchers found that the students actually showed better memory for the hard-to-read text than for the easy-to-read text.

While students with higher working memory capacity were less distractible than their lower-capacity peers when the text was easy to read, the hard-to-read text seemed to eliminate this advantage. As the researchers hypothesized, the increased difficulty of the task seemed to facilitate attention and shield against noisy distractions for individuals with lower working memory capacity.

The benefits of increasing task difficulty can only extend so far, but Halin and colleagues believe their findings offer a practical intervention that could enhance performance in office environments.

So next time you’re having trouble reading a report against the distractions of office noise, why not try a new font on for size?


Halin, N., Marsh, J.E., Hellman, A., Hellström, I., & Sörqvist, P. (2014). A shield against distraction. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 3(1), 31-36. DOI: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2014.01.003

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